Arrived in Lima on December 30 – just in time to ring in the New Year! Lima is a huge city – nearly one third of the entire population of Peru lives in the Lima urban area. We stayed in the Miraflores neighborhood, which is considered an upscale area, and sits cliffside high above the Pacific Ocean.
We’d been to Lima previously, ten years ago to the month, but only stayed a few days back then, so it was great experiencing the city again with a more leisurely lens. We loved it.
Part of our great experience had to do with our living accommodations. Our apartment was beautiful- this was the first time on our trip that we’ve had roommates (the wonderful Chau Duong and Bri Suffety, who graciously surrendered the master bedroom to us). The apartment was perfectly situated on a relatively quiet street (for Lima!). We had an upscale grocery store right across the street, a “go to” restaurant (Mama Olla’s) half a block away on a pedestrian street, and most services (pharmacy, barber, etc) within a block or two.
Lima was one of the easiest cities we’ve lived in over the last nine months. The currency, the sole, is stable – in fact, the exchange rate is nearly what it was when we were here ten years ago, about 3 to a US dollar. The ATM’s all worked, most things we wanted to buy were available, most places accepted credit cards, and generally the city seemed to function efficiently, at least in our small part of town.
Sometime in the last ten years Lima has become a foodie city. There are several one world renowned restaurants here, and many people in our group enjoyed them. Barbara and I passed on those, since they were fairly expensive, but we still ate out at a number of great places. The local alcohol of choice is Pisco, which is brandy/cognac-like often made into a sour and topped with whipped eggwhites. As you might expect on the coast, seafood was popular. We enjoyed the ceviche – freshly caught raw white fish marinated in lime juice and onions, which actually “cooks” it. There was also a wide variety of exotic (to us Texans!) fresh fruits available. One that I really enjoyed was the Aguaymanto (Peruvian cherry), which is a small fruit that looks like an orange cherry tomato. We were told that one of these small fruits contains as much Vitamin C as three oranges. Lots of other great food, too, including Chinese (the Chinese restaurants in Lima are called Chifas), Italian and various fusions.
Although we really enjoyed the City of Lima, much of our month was spent traveling around areas that we didn’t make it to on our previous trip ten years ago. We had already seen Cuzco and Machu Picchu, so we chose not to do that again, although we remember it as an amazing experience. Instead, we took a bus trip to the north, along the Pacific Coast, and then inland toward the mountains, ending up in Bolivia. Some of those travels are covered below! We also saw some of the lesser Nasca lines from a viewing tower. I had always pictured those as being carved in stone, but the ones we saw were simple drag lines in the dirt. Since it never rains in the very arid place where these lines are located, the wind keeps the lines swept clean, even over hundreds (thousands?) of years.
The City of Arequipa
Peru’s second largest city (by far, with less than one million people compared to ten million in Lima), it is a beautiful colonial city at Elevation 7660 feet. The weather was cool and pleasant, the air clean, the mountain views beautiful and the colonial architecture interesting. We experienced a small earthquake there on the morning we left!
Every schoolboy’s favorite location (it’s just fun to say!), the lake covers a huge area between Peru and Bolivia and is very deep. Our bus drove around the perimeter for several hours, but we also had to take a ferry across a narrow arm of the lake. The people got off the bus and took a regular boat, but our bus came across on a flimsy barge.
The Oasis of Huacachina
An amazing freshwater “lake” and associated flora surrounded by huge sand dunes in the middle of the desert, Huacachina is said by some to be the only natural oasis in the Americas. It’s really a sight to see, although my allergies complained about the dust and the sand. The shopkeepers swept constantly to clear the airbourne sand particles from the fronts of their shops. There are only about 100 actual residents, who survive by catering to tourists who come in on buses to sandboard, ride dune buggies, or just enjoy the unusual scenery.
The Bolivian Salt Flats
I’m not usually too impressed with stuff. I enjoy it all, but I don’t ooh and aah. However, there are no words to describe the salt flats. They are an otherworldly experience like nothing I’ve ever done. It was like having a mirage in a dream. Our tour guide set up a picnic lunch for our group of six out on the flats, where we sat with our sandal clad feet in the ¾-inch of water that covered the salt (the water is what causes the dreamlike effect, so that only happens after there has been a rain). The flats are huge – we were told they cover a larger area than Lake Titicaca. The site was well worth the grueling travel, which consisted of an overnight bus trip from La Paz to get to Uyuni (where the tours begin), and then another to get back to La Paz after our day at the flats.
The City of La Paz
We didn’t know much about La Paz, other than that it is the (or one of the!) highest capital cities in the world, at around 12,000 feet. We just knew we needed to go through there to get to the salt flats. But it’s a city that warrants a visit all its own. We spent only two days there, which wasn’t enough, but we did get to ride the gondolas, eat some local cuisine and walk on the elevated boardwalk through the park. We held up pretty well, elevation-wise, because our bus trip through Arequipa and the mountains had already acclimated us. However, there are a lot of hills and we did have to stop and catch our breath a few (many?) times.
The commuter system in Lima is actually a rapid bus system that runs on dedicated lanes down the center of the primary limited access highway. The few times we used it, it seemed to be quite crowded and well used. There was also a system of buses and vans running on the surface streets, but it was confusing and not user friendly at all. We used cabs, Uber and good old foot power most times.
Although humid, temperatures were pleasant the whole time we were there, with highs in the 70s F. It didn’t cool down much at night. We didn’t have, or need, AC at our apartment, but we slept with the windows open and there were no flying insect problems, even with no screens. It rarely rains in Lima (it’s technically a desert and annual rainfall is less than one inch!), but there were a couple times when there was a trace of moisture that almost wet the sidewalks. Most days included some sun and some clouds. Very nice, overall.
Prices were reasonable for most things, and downright cheap sometimes. Only a few times did we spend more than $20 per person for an entire meal plus drinks and tip, and those times were at very upscale restaurants. The more local restaurants would typically have a set lunch special (menu el dia) that ran about $3 or 4 US for an appetizer, main dish and dessert. But drinks were usually extra! A glass of wine usually ran between $4-6 US, often more than the meal itself. As you might expect, the more touristy places were a lot more expensive than the local places. I got a great haircut AND beard trim for less than $12 US, without even shopping around for the best deal.
Hang gliding off the cliffs in the Miraflores neighborhood was awesome – I went when we were here last time and several in our group went this trip. Most days there were many kites soaring above the cliffs. Surfing is also big, with rental shops and surf schools stretched all along the waterfront. Gambling is legal in Lima, and there are several large casinos throughout the City, and many smaller ones (often the larger Chifa restaurants have casinos in them).
Lima is a very crowded city, with all the problems that go with that. Air quality and traffic are bad. The tap water is not drinkable by most tourists, and the plumbing is old and undersized – toilet paper cannot be flushed (similarly to several other South American cities). Pedestrians are ignored by most drivers, even though there are huge crowds of people walking on narrow sidewalks most of the day. It’s everyone for themselves!